The objective of Sorority Life is simple: to be the hottest sister on campus. As you might imagine, the game is both hugely popular and totally demented. And the players aren't who you would expect.
Sorority Life is a classic role-playing game: You, the player, are a sister who is working her way through the social ranks in order to be the queen bee of the biggest and strongest house. This lofty goal is achieved by gaining influence, attacking your rivals, and collecting clothes and accessories. Popularity, cash, stamina, and charm all contribute to your overall influence level. To real-life sorority girls (present or former), this might sound creepily familiar, a nauseating interpretation of the Greek scene's more unpleasant nuances. Which it is.
Sorority Life has between 600K-700K daily players on Facebook, adding up to over 5 million monthly active users. According to Christa Quarles, CFO of the game's manufacturer, Playdom, players are 90% female and, surprisingly, are on average over the age of 35. Presumably the older age demographic is because the avid users have a bit more time on their hands — but it also could be because at 35+, you're long past the days when Greek Week was or could have been your actual life. And if your college experience did in fact include being in a sorority, playing Sorority Life is like playing Put The Fingernails On The Chalkboard.
But more on that later. First, how do you become the hottest chick on campus? To start, you pick your name, dress up your avatar, and invite your Facebook friends to "join your house." Your house, however, is not so much a standalone entity as it a euphemism for your network — if you accept five invites to join five players' houses, than you are now a member of five houses (which so would not fly with Panhell). The bigger your house/network, the more "influence" you have. But until you build up your numbers, will you start out a total loser, as I did.
Fear not! You lose the metaphorical baby fat as your house gets bigger. As the strength of your house increases, you'll begin to have more opportunities to increase your charm. Additionally, you can cop to being a plebe and get a job, which leads to more cash.
Obviously, working in the imaginary cafeteria would cause imaginary humiliation. But you can work your way up to other gigs. You can also organize social events to help raise your influence. As you ascend through the levels of gameplay, these social events begin to take the form of games reminiscent of Bejeweled — or in the case of the costume party I "organized," something out of a beer-stained issue of Highlights.
With more cash, you can "buy" better clothes and other trappings called "Glam" — clothes, handbags, cars, iPhones, lipsticks — to help increase your charm and influence.
You can even buy a boyfriend. Obviously, I bought myself two (no slut-shaming on this campus). Meet Serge and Fletcher. Serge is better in bed, but Fletcher's house has the best date parties.
Earning enough cash or brownie points to make power-enhancing purchases takes awhile — Quarles refers to this method of advancing as "grinding." But there's a more efficient way to advance, if you're ready to pull out your real-life credit card. That's when things get easier: A player can actually use real money to buy points and glam.
Some of Sorority Life's best-selling items have directly responded to actual events: For instance, if you had enough fake cash (unlikely) or real cash (more likely), you could buy your avatar the dress Taylor Swift wore at the AMA's a few nights prior, or you could get a status-enhancing new look by purchasing Miley Cyrus's hairdo. "The notion of exclusivity is really important — folks want to get in on that deal," says Quarles. "It actually increases the value of the item that they're purchasing." These items all contribute to getting your avatar to look "different and special," explains Quarles, "which goes into the core of game play, the Catwalk — a lot of folks spend time and money on that."
Ah yes, the Catwalk! This is where Sorority Life starts to twist the more subtle nuances of real-life sororities into increasingly disturbed gameplay.
If you've got a ton of sisters and are have outfitted yourself with charm-enhancing and popularity-boosting outfits, you can take to a virtual runway where your avatar faces off against the avatars of other players, and any player can randomly vote on whose avatar is the hottest. This may sound utterly mind-numbing, but it is part of the game's "core." Quarles makes no qualms about why people want to spend their time doing this: "It's as simple as an 'I'm prettier than you are' kind of thing. So people will spend [real or gameplay] money on the clothes that it takes for them to be the hottest sister." These hottest avatars climb the leaderboard — ascending is the female equivalent of bragging rights, the explicit manifestation of the "prettiest girl on campus" mentality, or the hottest girl at the frat party. You can almost see the top avatars lifting their pert, digital noses in the air.
If the girl-on-girl aggression of the Catwalk isn't explicit enough for your tastes, there's always the game's Fight feature, which is exactly what it sounds like: The game gives you a chance to "attack" your rivals (i.e., anyone who's roughly at the same level of points/influence/whatever as you). Disappointingly, there's no flash animation to illustrate the fighting; just click and get an instantaneous result. She who has the most "stuff" — clothes, accessories, boyfriends — wins.
But it's not all nastiness on this virtual campus — if you attack the same girl and win three times in a row, the poor thing gets sent to the spa. Isn't that nice?
And so on, and so forth. That's basically it. Players can climb through the ranks infinitely; there's no graduation or end to the game. Keep collecting friends and buying stuff, and your gorgeous reign never has to end.
Sorority Life — and the act of playing it — is deranged. My personal sorority experience was about as good as they come, and I was still unsettled by the game's hyper-literal interpretation and over-articulation of Greek life's darker side, pink-washed and translated into a cutesy game. Interestingly, the game's concept came from Playdom's chairman's wife, Rhona Thompson, who was herself in a sorority. Presumably she would know as well as anyone how to make a game out of the passive-aggressive and unspoken competition that dominates so many sorority experiences.
Given that the majority of players are over the age of 35, worrying about what sort of message the game sends to younger players takes a backseat to a more bizarre question: Why are grown women playing this? Does a woman never outgrow the thrill of schoolyard strutting and prom-queen competition? The game reinforces the idea that this crap is fun. The allure of being the head cheerleader, the most popular girl, the hottest chick in the coolest sorority — the longing to be those things doesn't necessarily go away with time. Moreover, it all suggests that these archetypes are so deeply ingrained as idealized identities that they constitute a fantasy worth losing oneself in, that the popularity game is one worth revisiting and winning, even years after you've left campus. With Sorority Life, you can.
Yeah, it's pretty fucked up.